February 28th, 2008


Broadcasting from Berlin to the Anglosphere

Yesterday I began a new regular column on Frieze.com, the website of the UK's most important art magazine. It's been eight months since I had my Wired column, and in that time I didn't make any efforts to get a new regular journalism job. Tell a lie, I did apply for the end column in American graphic design magazine Print. But my experience is that you don't headhunt commentary columns, they headhunt you. In the meantime, I write what's basically a daily culture commentary piece here on Click Opera. It's clearly something I love doing; broadcasting from Germany into the Anglosphere.

One thing I find very interesting is how you tailor your writing to the magazine involved, and to the concerns of the country or the city publishing it. Writing for Wired, I clearly had to buy into the Californian ideology, the idea that technology married with untrammeled free market entrepreneurship will lead inevitably to progress. That's not a European perspective, though, as we see from the satisfyingly vast fines the EU levies against Microsoft. Here we believe in trammeling!

As someone beaming in commentary from Berlin, then, what I tended to do at my Wired column (and to their credit they gave me total carte blanche) was sound cautionary notes about technology and capitalism, and foreground ethics. Broadcasting into the Anglosphere from Berlin via Wired meant raising concerns about sock puppets shilling product on YouTube, or hi-tech marketing techniques leading us from junk mail to junk world. This was either, as Kumakouji likes to say, evidence of my status as a "self-hating extreme liberal" or, as BBC documentarist Adam Curtis once told me (and I consider Curtis the greatest commentator now broadcasting), a necessary awareness of "how the anti-establishment counterculture created today's capitalism of the self" (a theme that comes through strongly in the new VBS interview with Bobby Gillespie, by the way).

Wired is a magazine I read religiously in the mid-90s, but had stopped reading by the time they gave me a column, so there was also a weird temporal disconnect to my commentary -- it was, in a sense, a throwback and a tribute to the 90s Wired, the mag I loved, the one founded in Amsterdam by Louis Rossetto, with its Idées Fortes section modeled on Jean-François Bizot's Actuel, and Nicholas Negroponte nestling inside its back cover. Working for Frieze will be quite different. For a start, Frieze is a magazine I read regularly. One of the only magazines, in fact, that I buy. (One nice bonus is that they've given me a free subscription, which'll save me €10 every month or so.) It's a magazine allies like Michael Bracewell and Brian Dillon write for. So loyal am I to Frieze, in fact, that I spent my one chance to interact with my hero David Bowie (in a webchat on his site) asking him why he wrote for Modern Painters rather than Frieze, when Frieze is the cooler magazine! (He said it was because they, like him, loved painting.)

My first column, Very Superstitious, continues the ethical theme (or, if you prefer, the "extreme liberal self-hatred"). It looks at the work of Katrin Tees, an Estonian artist who mocks the pretentious hypocrisies of consumerism, and who's part of a group, the Infotankers, who are less-than-delighted by Estonia's recent emergence into full-blown capitalist affluence. What I noticed, writing for a British magazine, is that I couldn't resist dragging class into the analysis (about 75% of all UK commentary has class as its not-so-secret theme, when you get down to the muck and brass tacks).

Using Tees' photographs to illustrate my theme that consumerism is "very superstitious", I described seeing them "in the NGBK Gallery in Kreuzberg – a Berlin district we could safely call reflexively, almost institutionally, consumer-cynical, but also more-than-usually likely to succumb to the charismatic counter-offensives of aromatherapists, holistic healers and organic dieticians". In a sense, Kreuzberg here (as an advanced bourgeois district) stands in for the art world, and the kind of people who read Frieze, who are (in my view valuably) conflicted about the vast sums of money washing around the art world, and art's need to be about more than an uncritical expression of market values.

"I got to wondering who this ‘handbook of creative littering’ was satirizing," I continued. "The answer fell uncomfortably close to home; anyone, it seems, who’s sick of both consumerism and the moronic cynicism it fosters. Anyone who, exhausted by resistance to endless commercial pressure, suspends their critical thinking long enough to let some charmingly ‘alternative’ professional answer the wearying epistemological question, ‘Who says so, and how do you know?’ with the mesmerizing answer, ‘I do, I just do, trust me.’"

The themes haven't changed much, then. What's different, with this new column, is a couple of things. First, I'm talking to people of my own class, from my own land. Hence the phrase "uncomfortably close to home". When I criticized "the Californian ideology" it wasn't exactly from the inside. This time, I have much more right to be self-critical, and to use the "we" voice. Secondly, the art world is much more preoccupied with ethical themes, and with self-criticism, than the tech world is. That's not to say that I intend to make my Frieze columns an orgy of guilt, or one long soapbox thump. But it does mean I'll be less of a Lord Haw Haw character, using Berlin (and occasionally Japan) as a base for attacks on the Anglosphere and its wicked ways. This time it'll be something much more akin to good old British self-deprecation, and good old bourgeois self-doubt, and the good old contemporary art world's nimble dialectic between rampant commodification and ethical hedging.

I'm not budging from Berlin, but in a weird way writing for a British magazine -- one I actually read -- feels like coming home.